On Defining Beauty

Exhibition Review "Defining Beauty - the Body in Ancient Greek Art"

The British Museum (until 5th July 2015)

Written by Daen Palma Huse

A figure of a naked man, possibly Dionysos. Marble statue from the East pediment of the Parthenon. Designed by Phidias, Athens, Greece, 438BC-432BC. Height 127cm x 174cm. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

A figure of a naked man, possibly Dionysos. Marble statue from the East pediment of the Parthenon. Designed by Phidias, Athens, Greece, 438BC-432BC. Height 127cm x 174cm. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

This spring’s great exhibition at the British Museum – ‘Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art’ – provokes a reassessment of the representation of the human form as object of beauty as well as its discourse. Outstanding pieces of the vast British Museum collection are shown in a new light alongside loans from other great collections within a very classical exhibition concept. Amongst the pieces shown are intricate works in bronze, marble and terracotta.  A highlight of the exhibition is the stunning Greek bronze statue of a young athlete with copper inlay, only discovered in 1999 in the sea by the Croatian shore, which is being exhibited for the first time in the UK after many years of careful restoration.

 

Upon entering the exhibition, visitors are greeted by the great mastery of three highly skilled Greek sculptors that are believed to originate from the school of bronze mastersmith Ageladas: the incredible original Greek marble of river god Lissos based on Pheidas’ work from the Parthenon, a Roman copy of the Diskobolos by Myron and a 1920s bronze reconstruction of Polykleitos’ Doryphoros. The style of all of these pieces dates back to the 5th century BC. They are excellent examples of different artistic responses to the intellectual and physical beauty of the male form. The female form is represented here by Lely’s Venus, a Roman copy of the Greek original showing naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath. In Greek depictions, Aphrodite was the only female figure to be depicted nude.

Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath, also known as Lely’s Venus. Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD. Height 120cm. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath, also known as Lely’s Venus. Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD. Height 120cm. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Marble statue of a discus-thrower (discobolus) by Myron. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC. Height 173cm x width 100cm. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Marble statue of a discus-thrower (discobolus) by Myron. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC. Height 173cm x width 100cm. © The Trustees of the British Museum

 

Draped fabrics provide a beautiful backdrop for the iconic statues displayed throughout the exhibition. The theatrical display creates a dramatic atmosphere, which in combination with slightly higher display plinths, exudes an air of grandeur. This makes it possible to view the statues at an angle and from slightly below, which imitates the viewpoint presumably found in their original setting.

 

While the show focuses on the Greek body in a lot of detail, it does not refrain from taking a glance further. Depictions of misbehaving Satyrs, guided by love and lust, heroes like Herakles killing vicious animals, a sleeping Hermaphrodite, fighting Centaurs, teaching philosophers and a Sphinx provide examples of the Greek adaption of the body and are placed alongside examples from ancient Egyptian, Assyrian and Mayan cultures as well as Michelangelo’s work that naturally was, within the Italian Renaissance, heavily influenced by the ancient Greek ideal of beauty. In particular, the comparison of two similarly themed reliefs, one Assyrian (730-727 BC) and one Greek (2nd century BC), is highly political.

Detail of head of Apoxyomenos. Bronze, Hellenistic or Roman replica after a bronze original from the second quarter or the end of the 4th century BC. © Tourism Board of Mali Losinj

Detail of head of Apoxyomenos. Bronze, Hellenistic or Roman replica after a bronze original from the second quarter or the end of the 4th century BC. © Tourism Board of Mali Losinj

 

The Assyrian relief depicts the scene of a Lycean conquest as a cruel act of subjugation, with beheadings and bodies being cast aside, whereas the Roman relief shows the conquest in a more respectful and dignified manner, with the Lycean leader shown nude and graceful. While the generally classical exhibition design could come under scrutiny for following too much an inherently Western tradition of displaying art – with each and every single object placed on a plinth and thus the taste of stereotypical ‘high art’, that is shown in a pristine gallery environment, lingering – the exhibition nevertheless attempts taking a comparative and multi-faceted approach offering insights for those interested in historical research.

 

Bronze vessel in the form of the head of a young African woman. Hellenistic, 2nd century BC-1st century BC. Funded by The Art Fund. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Bronze vessel in the form of the head of a young African woman. Hellenistic, 2nd century BC-1st century BC. Funded by The Art Fund. © The Trustees of the British Museum

In the final third of the exhibition, a more refined and diverse portrayal of the Greek representation of the body is shown, the highpoint of which coincides with Alexander the Great’s defeat of the Persian Empire and expansion of Greek society in the late 4th century BC. In view of the new cosmopolitan climate of this expansion, a greater range of human as well as stylistic variety emerged. In earlier Greek artworks, attributes such as the gender, age and ethnicity of a body appear to be somewhat generic, if they are discernible at all.

 

The high refinement of Greek culture becomes ever more apparent with subjects such as theatre, writers, philosophers, pets, athletes and warriors being portrayed, as well as everyday life such as baths, feasts, sex or teaching. When we think about the body today, how it is portrayed, what our (‘Western’) ideal of beauty is and how illustrations of the human form are embedded in our culture, it seems astonishingly similar to what we learn about the Greek world at the British Museum. Ancient Greek civilisation, often referred to as the birthplace of the European legacy, has shaped our everyday life. We can undoubtedly conclude that what Greek culture offered has defined our world, has defined us – has DEFINED BEAUTY. 

 

Studies of a reclining male nude: Adam in the fresco 'The Creation of Man' on the vault of the Sistine Chapel. c. 1511 Dark red chalk over some stylus underdrawing (left calf and elsewhere). Michelangelo. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Studies of a reclining male nude: Adam in the fresco 'The Creation of Man' on the vault of the Sistine Chapel. c. 1511 Dark red chalk over some stylus underdrawing (left calf and elsewhere). Michelangelo. © The Trustees of the British Museum